I’ll bet you know at least a few people who are quite proud of the fact that they smoke only occasionally. A few cigarettes at a party and then no more smoking for weeks — not bad! The idea, of course, is that the occasional cigarette or two will not inflict smoking’s terrible toll on a person’s health. But, sorry to say, I have bad news for them and, for that matter, anyone who lights up, however often. A study from the Masonic Cancer Center and department of pharmacology at the University of Minnesota discovered that smoking even one cigarette starts to damage the smoker’s DNA within minutes… and the news gets worse. The result of this particular damage is a heightened risk for lung cancer.

The Path of Destruction

This study investigated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are one among the many constituents of cigarette smoke known to cause cancer. (Note: We’re also exposed to PAHs in our environment from incompletely burned fossil fuels — it’s in vehicle exhaust, coal, agricultural burning, grilled meat, etc.)

How the research worked: Using a special device to measure the substance as it passed into circulation, researchers took blood samples to track the PAH in question (called phenanthrene) as it made its way through the bodies of 12 volunteer smokers. They found that within 15 to 30 minutes after the volunteers had smoked a cigarette, the phenanthrene taken into the body had transformed into a form that attacks DNA. That the transformation occurred this quickly surprised even the researchers — in the paper, they noted it was the same rate they would have expected from injecting the PAH directly into a smoker’s bloodstream.

“Definitely” Dangerous

I spoke with Stephen S. Hecht, PhD, professor of cancer prevention, the lead author of the study, who told me that the damage PAHs cause include cell mutations, loss of tumor-suppressor gene activity and activation of oncogenes (genes that contribute to converting healthy cells into cancer). He also said that other studies have shown that PAHs are one of the most dangerous types of carcinogens —”near the top of the list,” he told me. When I asked him whether having a single cigarette, just one a month or so, could possibly be enough to trigger damage that could contribute to lung cancer, he was adamant. “Definitely,” he said.

While it’s true that occasional smokers do not consume as much poison from smoking as regular smokers do, it is clear that for the sake of their health, giving up whatever pleasure they get from now-and-then smoking is well worth the effort. And, since smoking is so highly addictive, even occasional smoking also increases the chances that what is now an infrequent indulgence will become a steady habit. The message is clear — abstinence is the only way to go.